Squirrels &

The Law

Squirrels & The Law

The red squirrel is a protected species under Schedules 5 & 6 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.

It is an offence to :

  • Intentionally kill, injure or take (capture) a wild red squirrel.
  • Intentionally or recklessly damage or destroy any structure or place a red squirrel uses for shelter or protection or disturb a red squirrel while it is occupying such a place.
  • Possess a dead or live wild red squirrel, or any part of a red squirrel, unless you can show that the animal was taken legally.
  • Sell, or offer for sale, a wild red squirrel or any part of a wild red squirrel.

Section 18 of the Act makes it clear that attempting to commit an offence is, legally, the same as committing the offence.


There are defences in the Act that, in certain circumstances, permit actions that would otherwise be illegal. These include:

  • The act was the incidental result of a lawful operation and could not reasonably have been avoided. This defence applies to killing or injuring squirrels or damaging or destroying their places of shelter or protection.
  • The act took place within a dwelling-house. This defence only applies to damaging or destroying places used for shelter or protection. (It could be used, for example, if red squirrels enter the roof of a house).
  • Injured or disabled animals may be taken and possessed solely for the purpose of looking after them and releasing them once they are no longer disabled; similarly, badly injured animals may legally be killed.


In addition to these defences, there is also a licensing system, which can permit activities that would otherwise be offences for certain purposes. Licences are issued by government departments (e.g. DEFRA) or statutory nature conservation organisations (e.g. Natural England) depending on the purpose.

Government departments deal with licences for :

  • Prevention of serious damage to livestock, crop or growing timber or any other form of property.
  • Prevention of the spread of disease and for public health and safety.

SNCO’s deal with licences for :

  • Science or education.
  • Preservation of zoological collections.
  • Conservation.

A survey licence is required for any survey work that would interfere with the animals or their dreys, (e.g. if an animal were to be caught for any purpose, such as marking or tagging, or if surveys involved the disturbance of an animal at a resting place or interference with such a resting place, e.g. nest boxes). However a survey licence is not required to carry out indirect survey for red squirrels (e.g. visual survey, hair tube survey, drey counts, feeding sign surveys or for using whole maize bait), providing that the surveyor takes reasonable precautions to avoid disturbing these animals in their dreys.

There is no provision for licensing the killing or injuring of squirrels or the destruction of places used for shelter or protection for the purpose of development, forestry etc. Any defence against damage under these circumstances is only eligible if this was the incidental result of a lawful operation and could not reasonably have been avoided.

Possession & Sale of Red Squirrels

It is illegal to capture or possess or sell a red squirrel without a licence.

However, the law only applies to wild animals. Red squirrels that have been legally imported or are captive-bred may be sold or possessed without a licence, though the onus rests on the possessor to show that they were legally acquired.

Captive Breeding of Red Squirrels

Red squirrels can legally be held in captivity under the following circumstances :

  • Not wild animals. The animals could be captive-bred, either bought from a dealer or bred on site. If captive wild squirrels give birth in captivity the progeny are not considered to be wild animals. (Some red squirrels have been imported, quite legally, from Germany).
  • In captivity solely for the purpose of tending them and releasing them when no longer disabled. (It could be argued that ‘solely’ would not include having them on public display, especially in a commercial environment).
  • Held under a licence issued by a government department or statutory nature conservation organisation. (A copy of the licence should be available for inspection).
  • An escaped captive-bred red squirrel can be trapped by the owner without a licence. However, once formally released, captive-bred squirrels are fully protected by the Wildlife & Countryside Act legislation and a licence would be needed for any recapture.

Release of Red Squirrels

Under the Wildlife & Countryside Act it is not illegal to release captive-bred red squirrels, or other legally-held red squirrels, into the wild. However the release of animals without adequate effort to ensure their future well-being may be an offence under the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960.

It is an offence to release into the wild animals that are “of a kind which is not ordinarily resident in and is not a regular visitor to Great Britain in a wild state” [S14(1)].

However genetic studies indicate that red squirrels from Great Britain and continental Europe are not separate subspecies, so it is considered very unlikely this provision would apply.

Whilst not legally binding the national red squirrel groups advise against the release of red squirrels :

  • In areas where grey squirrels are present and are not controlled and where the predominant woodland type is broadleaved. (NB. This stance was adopted at a time when grey control options were limited).
  • In red only areas unless it can be shown that the existing population is so small that its survival is endangered and that there is suitable habitat available to support a larger population.
  • In areas where neither red nor grey squirrels are present unless it can be shown that the area was formerly populated with red squirrels and that the reasons for their disappearance are known and have been ameliorated.

Forestry / Habitat Management

The intentional or reckless destruction of places red squirrels use for shelter or protection cannot be licensed and must rely on the defence provided in the legislation that the act was the ‘incidental result of a lawful operation and could not reasonably have been avoided’.

In order to minimise the risk of prosecution, forestry managers in areas where red squirrels occur are advised to ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to avoid or, if that is not possible, minimise damage to places red squirrels use for shelter or protection. This can best be achieved by undertaking a squirrel survey prior to planning any work and ensuring that appropriate mitigation measures are included in the proposals. Specialist advice may be required.

Legal Status of the Grey Squirrel

The grey squirrel is included in Schedule 9 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 and is also covered by the Grey Squirrels (Prohibition of Importation and Keeping) Order 1937, issued under the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932.

This legislation means that :

  • Grey squirrel control is a legal activity which does not need to be licensed.
  • It is illegal to release a trapped grey squirrel into the wild or allow one to escape, even if it was taken into captivity for welfare reasons.
  • It is illegal to keep a grey squirrel in captivity.
  • Any grey squirrel caught must be humanely destroyed.
  • Licences to permit the possession and release of grey squirrels for specific purposes can be issued by government departments.

The Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 makes it illegal to subject grey squirrels to wilful acts of cruelty, abuse or unnecessary suffering. This legislation needs to be taken into account when determining the method of killing for grey squirrel control (for example drowning is considered an inhumane method of despatch). The grey squirrel control methodology adopted by the group already fully abides by this legislation.

Other Legislation


Red squirrels may legally be imported into Britain provided they meet any requirements of the exporting country and comply with UK quarantine regulations. (However the project intends to source animals from the UK to minimise any stress associated with transportation and to ensure compatibility with UK habitat and climatic conditions).


The Spring Traps Approval Order 1995 together with subsequent variations, govern the types of trap that can be used for grey control. (The traps used by field volunteers meet this requirement).


The Control of Pesticides Regulations 1986 (as amended) defines the type of poison that may be used to control grey squirrels. (However use of poison is not part of the grey control methods used by field volunteers).

Tree Felling

The felling of trees may also be controlled by other legislation, most notably that a Forestry Commission felling licence is required to fell growing timber unless an exception applies.

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